Not what you say but the way that you say it? Language lessons for leadership and internal communication

Ellen Hake who tutors on our Internal Communication Certificate says that Internal Communications professionals often have difficulty convincing leaders that it is better to communicate in plain language – especially in financial, legal and academic organisations. She told us:

My clients – as well as participants in my Tone of Voice class – want evidence.

Ellen Hake

Ellen Hake

“Fluency – the subjective experience of ease or difficulty associated with completing a mental task – has been shown to be an influential cue in a wide array of judgments,” writes Daniel Oppenheimer, associate professor of psychology at UCLA, in The secret life of fluency. He cites studies (his own and others’) showing that people judge fluent statements to be more true and to come from more intelligent sources than non-fluent statements.

In spite of this research, does it really matter if leaders use long words, long sentences and passive verbs?  My answer to that question is a big YES, as you may know from my Tone of Voice class or chapter in Exploring Internal Communication.

Over the past few months, PR Academy alumni have participated in my research project, which I hoped would add further support to the case.

Interestingly, my research showed an important difference from Oppenheimer’s.

My objective was to see how people perceive leaders based on whether they write in plain or complex language. Half of the participants received the plain language version of the letter, half the complex letter. Each participant was then asked to evaluate the writer’s sincerity, trustworthiness, intelligence and ability to manage the change discussed in the letter.

The study participants came from three groups: the PR Academy, an engineering department and the civil service. Ann Pilkington at PR Academy generously helped me out by sending the research request to many students – a thousand thanks to Ann and all the participants!

The result:

  • All three research groups found the writer of the plain language letter to significantly more sincere, trustworthy and capable of managing the change. Dramatic learning for leaders!
  • The major difference (which means more statistical analysis for me – not my strength) was in how the participants evaluated the intelligence of the writer.

The engineers and the civil servants found the plain language writer to be somewhat more intelligent, while the PR Academy folks found the plain language writer to be significantly less intelligent. This seems to contradict Oppenheimer’s fluency research.

I’d love to get your thoughts on any of this:

  • Why do you think PR Academy alumni might have rated the complex language writer more highly on intelligence?
  • Do you have any groups that would be interested in participating in the research? (It just means sending an email that I prepared to each of two groups – and it takes each participant less than 5 minutes to read the letter and complete the electronic survey.)
  • How could you use this research in working with your organisations?

I am continuing to analyse the research as part of my post-graduate studies in the Neuroscience of Leadership and using it in the workshops I give on the neuroscience of communication. I will post the final study on this site (some months off).

Don’t you just love it when science and communication come together?

Thanks for sharing the research so far Ellen – if anyone wants to get in touch you can contact Ellen by email – ehake@


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PR Academy is the largest centre for qualifications accredited by the CIPR and has been established since 2007. It offers the full range of CIPR qualifications covering public relations, internal communication, public affairs, digital and crisis communication. All courses can be studied online and some face to face in central London. Join the hundreds of practitioners that get #CIPRQualified every year.

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